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Wikipedia talk:Conflict of interest

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Sources on conflict of interest (chronological)Edit

When to remove old COI documentation at talk pagesEdit

At what point should old documentation of a conflict of interest (COI) in a template like {{Connected contributor}} be removed? Naturally, one point would be if the documentation was in error, but what about if the COI was due to employment that is no longer the case? Or the user otherwise no longer maintains the pertinent relationship(s) any longer? Does COI, as least on Wikipedia, persist past the termination of the relationship which defined the COI? Or are COI policies and guidelines only applicable to extant relationships as of their last known status?

I ask this because Tinynull informed me on my user talk page that one of the users whose COI I was documenting is no longer employed at the organization from which their COI was derived. Consequently, should that documentation be removed? Or preserved anyway?

As far as I am aware, these situations are not addressed by any documentation, though I would love to be proven wrong. Any input on this matter is appreciated. Thank you for your time. —Nøkkenbuer (talkcontribs) 07:13, 11 October 2018 (UTC)

I'd say that documentation on an article talk page about edits to the article should stay there permanently, or at least as long as the edits remain in any form on the page. Editors who have changed their life circumstances such that they no longer have a COI should be able to remove disclosures from their own user pages or user talk pages, but other editors should make sure that they are acting on accurate information if they remove it for someone else. --Tryptofish (talk) 22:15, 17 October 2018 (UTC)
I'd say a minimum of a year, in any case. There was a discussion at WP:COIN about a user who declared a COI and then removed it a few minutes later. That obviously won't do, but where do we draw the arbitrary line? A year was my suggestion. Smallbones(smalltalk) 22:56, 17 October 2018 (UTC)
It should never come off. It is relevant to the history of the page. If at some point they stop having a COI and disclose that, that can be put in the "otherlinks" parameter in the "connected contributor" template. Jytdog (talk) 22:25, 24 October 2018 (UTC)

Small business owners, sole proprietors, and paid editingEdit

Is it considered paid editing when the owner/manager of a small business edits an article about their business? Let's assume it meets notability requirements.

It's my understanding that a company owner or employee always has a financial conflict of interest. If their job is in the PR/marketing department and they edit on company time, it's paid editing, but if their job is in an unrelated area, and they edit on their own time, it's a general COI, but not paid editing. Is that correct?

What about the case of an entrepreneur, sole proprietor, or manager of a small limited company (often also the major shareholder), who doesn't have dedicated marketing staff? These people generally take on tasks of public relations, advertising, social media promotion, etc., in addition to their other management duties (plus writing software, giving haircuts, or whatever else it is they might do). Do they need to disclose themselves as a paid contributor, as described in the WP:PAID policy? --IamNotU (talk) 12:26, 11 October 2018 (UTC)

  • Yes: meets the definition of the edits being paid. --K.e.coffman (talk) 06:25, 12 October 2018 (UTC)
  • Yes Legal Question should be answered by WMF: See my comments below. They must disclose their COI. --David Tornheim (talk) 19:36, 12 October 2018 (UTC) [revised 21:17, 22 October 2018 (UTC) based on further discussion.]
  • Yes. It is not only a COI, but also paid editing. --Tryptofish (talk) 22:12, 17 October 2018 (UTC)
  • Yes - the sole proprietor, CEO, majority shareholder, etc. is always involved in selling, marketing, PR, and promotion. He/she always gets more money when the firm does better ==> he/she always expects to be paid for their edits. But how about the secretary or personal assistant to the sole proprietor, CEO, or majority shareholder? Is he/she a paid editor or just a COI editor? Smallbones(smalltalk) 23:04, 17 October 2018 (UTC)
    • In my view, they would be intermediaries for the owner, and so their edits would be deemed paid editing. isaacl (talk) 01:41, 18 October 2018 (UTC)
      • @K.e.coffman, David Tornheim, and Tryptofish: Do you agree with Isaacl? Smallbones(smalltalk) 10:57, 18 October 2018 (UTC)
        • Yes, I agree. --Tryptofish (talk) 23:59, 18 October 2018 (UTC)
        • Yes, agree. K.e.coffman (talk) 00:38, 19 October 2018 (UTC)
        • I'm not them, but I agree anyway. Shock Brigade Harvester Boris (talk) 00:59, 19 October 2018 (UTC)
        • The original question about whether this meets the legal definition of a paid contribution under the Terms of Use should be answered by the attorneys for Wikimedia. If you can give me a good reason why editors have any say in what appears to be a legal question, then please explain. They wrote the terms of use where these terms are defined, did they not? They should have the answer and be prepared to defend the contract based on what they intended those terms to mean. Perhaps, this question should be placed on the Terms of Use page as feedback. --David Tornheim (talk) 04:43, 19 October 2018 (UTC)
The terms of use themselves answer this question directly:
"Applicable law, or community and Foundation policies and guidelines, such as those addressing conflicts of interest, may further limit paid contributions or require more detailed disclosure" ToU. Smallbones(smalltalk) 13:28, 19 October 2018 (UTC)

Thanks, I agree entirely. But I am a bit confused. I don't think that a lot of admins would agree that the "main exec's" secretary is a paid editor - or at least I've seen some decisions that raise doubt about it. Over at Wikipedia talk:Paid-contribution disclosure I proposed some ideas (perhaps I was flailing about on it) that I thought would be as obvious as my question above. Folks seem to think that this guideline can just be ignored, so I'd like the change to be in our policy WP:Paid. I only suggested that the employees would be required to declare a COI. "Employees" is broader than I really think is needed, but it does make is simpler, avoiding the question of "where do we draw the line?" The minimum that I'd like to see, though, is something like "the main exec and all folks who report directly to him/her are required to declare a COI." But if you want to make that "declare their paid editing status" that's fine too. So it seems like I need some help here. How do we tighten up what folks are required to declare? I'll be away for most of the weekend, but I'd love to move this forward. Smallbones(smalltalk) 04:03, 19 October 2018 (UTC)

As we've discussed previously, adding text to a page labelled "policy" isn't what makes it policy. A consensus agreement to make something policy is what counts, then that something can be labelled policy, wherever it is. Since you're proposing a policy for reporting a conflict of interest, it makes more sense to put the policy on this page, and label it as such, so it'll be easier to find.
Regarding management having a conflict of interest, how about renaming the "Paid editing" section to "Financial conflict of interest" and changing the sentence This includes being an owner, employee, contractor, investor or other stakeholder. to something like this includes being an owner, executive, executive assistant, employee, contractor, investor, or other stakeholder.
As for making a disclosure mandatory, that's the hard part: consensus needs to be reached to change the "COI editing" section to say you must disclose your COI when involved with affected articles, and to make this section policy. isaacl (talk) 04:29, 19 October 2018 (UTC)
Regarding whether or not an executive assistant should be considered a paid editor: perhaps I should have been more nuanced in my response. Promotional edits can, in my view, be deemed as paid edits being made by an intermediary. Non-promotional edits aren't as clear cut; it depends on the context. isaacl (talk) 04:40, 19 October 2018 (UTC)
  • Comment as stated above, I think this is a legal question. I am pinging Slaporte (WMF) (legal counsel for WMF) who answered a similar question here. Unfortunately, he has not made an edit with that account in two months. --David Tornheim (talk) 05:01, 19 October 2018 (UTC)

Thanks everyone for your comments! It seems like it's unanimously believed that the owner/operator of a business must disclose themselves as a paid contributor. In the case of employees, I think it would be determined in each case by the terms of their employment contract and specified job duties. My question was about people who don't have that because they aren't employees, for example the owner of a small but notable software company, a well-known author, or an independent filmmaker. I wasn't asking about making changes to policy, or introducing new rules, but about clarifying, maybe with examples, what the policy and rules actually are. It was mainly in connection with the requirement in the Terms of Use and how that's described here and in WP:PAID, and maybe a legal question.

The Terms of Use page talks about edits for compensation, and the FAQ says: '"compensation" means an exchange of money, goods, or services', so it would seem quid pro quo, dollars (or donuts) for edits. An employee with "marketing" in their job description gets dollars for edits. But a sole proprietor can argue "nobody gives me dollars for edits, they give me dollars for my goods or services". Nevertheless that person regularly writes press releases, promotes their business on social media, writes the copy for their website, and so on. For them to anonymously edit Wikipedia, even outside of office hours, even if they say they're following the NPOV guidelines, I'd think would be a violation of covert advertising laws, which is the main concern related to the requirement for disclosure of paid editing in the Terms of Use.

Similarly, WP:COIPAYDISCLOSE on this page only talks about disclosing your employer, "whoever is paying you to be involved in the article (such as a PR company)" so would seem only to apply to employees, not business owners. The WP:NOPAY section says "Being paid to contribute to Wikipedia is one form of financial COI; it places the paid editor in a conflict between their employer's goals and Wikipedia's goals." But what if the promotional editor and "employer" are the same person? There's no exchange. It's certainly "using Wikipedia for public relations and marketing purposes" but can it be called "paid advocacy" if there's no payer? All the language in the various pages regarding paid contributions seems to assume someone editing for someone else's benefit in exchange for money. But this would be a situation where a person is putting their own labor into increasing the value of their equity. So although it seems obvious that it is "paid editing", I'm still not 100% certain if it's "paid editing" as Wikipedia defines and describes it. Is there an intention to limit the definition to people who are hired to promote a business? --IamNotU (talk) 23:20, 19 October 2018 (UTC)

Not unanimous. I never said they are a "paid editor" under the definition. I said they have a COI they must disclose. I read the TOU and I agree with you, paid-editing seems to be described as "edits for compensation, and the FAQ says: '"compensation" means an exchange of money, goods, or services', so it would seem quid pro quo, dollars (or donuts) for edits." I also agree with your analysis that "But what if the promotional editor and "employer" are the same person? There's no exchange." So it's just not that straight-forward for someone self-employed. I'm actually inclined to say that the self-employed person is not paid under the definition. It seems to me legal counsel should answer the question.
As a practical matter, what difference does this make for a typical situation with a sole proprietor, author, artist, etc.: The sole proprietor having no knowledge comes on here having heard "anyone can edit", changes the entry on their business, and doesn't realize they need to disclose their COI, until someone confronts them. How does classifying this person who is ignorant of the rules as a "paid editor" helping the situation? These are just small fish doing small harm. They should be treated gently, not the harsh way I have seen.
The situation I just described is quite different than the WifiOne incident [1][2]. That kind of paid editor does much harm to Wikipedia, and I could see the person behind that being taken to court. I believe the "paid editing" in the ToU is primarily to address these kinds of editors who stay on Wikipedia for the sole purpose of manipulating our entries for payment--if it is over a long period of time or considerable hours are spent. I think the ToU is written somewhat vaguely to make sure that any and all paid editing by the long term "paid editor" like WifiOne is disclosed in full. I think it is also designed to include employees and contractors who as part of their job duties are expected to manipulate Wikipedia for corporate profits. These are the big fish we need to catch.
A sole proprietor who spends less than 1% of the time messing with Wikipedia doesn't seem to me to meet that definition. But if that sole proprietor is getting significant revenue from manipulation of wikipedia entries, then I think it might. Again, I think legal counsel should answer the question. --David Tornheim (talk) 05:06, 20 October 2018 (UTC)
Sorry I misunderstood, the question was "Is it considered paid editing..." and the answer was "yes", so I thought that's what you meant. The kind of situation I'm talking about is one I've seen many times, where someone creates an article about a small business or an entrepreneur, which no independent editor would have created because of borderline notability, writes a promotional or LinkedIn style of article extolling their virtues, and inserts material and wikilinks into a dozen barely-related articles. They're the only significant contributor to the article, sometimes maintaining it over many years. If the owner/entrepreneur told their assistant to do it, it would be paid advocacy editing and require disclosure. But if they do it themselves... is it or isn't it?
I'm asking because I want to know what I should tell someone if I discover an article/editor like that. In the past, like the others who've commented, I've told people that yes, they must disclose as a paid editor, since their job description (entrepreneur, owner-manager, author, etc.) includes carrying out promotional activities, and the compensation they receive from their customers in part pays them for those activities. But the language in the ToU etc. doesn't directly address the situation.
Whether the rule makes any practical difference, or any sense at all, is a separate question - I just want to know what the rule actually is... Having said that, one editor doing this isn't as egregious as the WifiOne case, but put tens of thousands together and it's significantly harmful to Wikipedia. I'm not inclined to let it go as "small fish" and look the other way; when I come across it, I try not to be harsh, but to ensure that the COI rules are fairly and consistenly applied - so I ought to have a good understanding of them. --IamNotU (talk) 16:26, 20 October 2018 (UTC)
Thanks for clarifying, and I think it's a good question. I think it's pretty clear that a sole proprietor etc. has a conflict of interest when they edit about their own business. For the more specific question of whether that falls under the paid editing terms of use, that becomes an interesting question. Looking at WP:PAID, "payment or compensation" are defined as: money, goods or services. Users who are compensated for any publicity efforts related to the subject of their Wikipedia contributions are deemed to be paid editors, regardless of whether they were compensated specifically to edit Wikipedia. I don't see anything that is explicitly about whether being "compensated" means only being compensated by someone else, or whether one can compensate oneself. In my opinion, it should indeed be understood as including self-compensation in addition to compensation by an employer. If there is any question about that, however, I could see a case for asking about it at WT:PAID. --Tryptofish (talk) 21:09, 20 October 2018 (UTC)
Compensated is defined here as: "an exchange of money, goods, or services." (Neither this nor the immediately above quote appear to have been written by WMF attorneys.) Do self-employed people "exchange...money, goods, or services" with themselves for work done on Wikipedia?--that sounds like a legal question, which should be answered by WMF counsel. --David Tornheim (talk) 12:12, 21 October 2018 (UTC)
compensation they receive from their customers in part pays them for those activities [of editing]. It seems a stretch to say that Wikipedia readers who purchase products (because of content created (or deleted) by sole-proprietor's edits) are "compensating" the sole proprietor for their edits. I can't imagine us demanding that the sole proprietor reveal the names of all their customers (effectively "outing" Wikipedia readers) under the claim that our readers are "compensating" the sole-proprietor for their edits.
I'm not inclined to let it go as "small fish" and look the other way; I agree. We need to be diligent of getting rid of such self-promo, which is one reason I work at WP:AfD to get rid of non-notable articles such as theirs. [T]ens of thousands together [are] significantly harmful to Wikipedia. I agree.
The question is whether the ToU was written to include small proprietors who are not paying anyone to edit for them. I don't think that was the intention, but only WMF attorneys who wrote it know the answer. I don't think the community decides such a legal interpretation, but I could be wrong about that. The reason WMF wrote it might have been to address concerns of the community. Again, I think WMF counsel needs to be asked, and this conversation does not make much sense without their input. --David Tornheim (talk) 12:12, 21 October 2018 (UTC)
I imagined that a self-employed person would simply list the employer as themselves, in the templates. Such a person decides how much to compensate themselves personally, and the rest of their profits go back into the business. The compensation pays for all the time they spent running the business, including marketing and promotion. Actually I'm starting to change my mind about saying "There's no exchange". At some point there's a transfer of funds from business use to personal use, and that's in exchange for the work done. It would be nice to get a comment from WMF counsel, not sure how to do that - I posted a link back here on the Terms of Use discussion page. --IamNotU (talk) 18:28, 21 October 2018 (UTC)
At some point there's a transfer of funds from business use to personal use, and that's in exchange for the work done. I do not believe that is the case for Sole proprietorship (but might be for some of the other myriad business forms, such as LLC, Partnership, or Corporation. See Business#Forms). According to our article for Sole proprietorship, "there is no legal distinction between the owner and the business entity." Hence, I do not believe there is any legal sense of a "transfer" such as a "salary", and I do not believe it is reported on the tax form as salary, there is no W-2 in the U.S., etc. (See IRS on Sole Proprietorships, "you don't pay yourself a salary", "If You’re a Sole Proprietor, There’s No Such Thing as a “Salary” for Tax Purposes"). Do you see why this is really a legal question? --David Tornheim (talk) 21:54, 21 October 2018 (UTC)
Yes, I see that it's a legal question... and I'm probably using the wrong terminology. But I still think that a sole proprietor gets compensation for the work they do in the course of carrying on their business, including PR and marketing work. It's not called "salary" or "wages", but "drawings". This IRS page "Paying Yourself" talks about "The procedures for compensating yourself for your efforts in carrying on a trade or business" and says drawings are the "amount of benefits you have taken from the business during the year". It even refers to it as "the sole proprietor's own salary". Even if it's you paying yourself, you're still getting paid. An employee whose job description includes PR is a paid contributor, the founding CEO or managing director of a corporation or some LLCs is considered an employee of the corporation so the same would be true. I can't see why a self-employed person should be treated any differently. --IamNotU (talk) 01:20, 22 October 2018 (UTC)
About whether readers are acting as the parties who compensate business owners, I don't think that we need to deal with that. The concept would be that business owners/sole proprietors would be compensating themselves from company revenues, and if those revenues might be increased as a result of edits here, that would make them paid edits. About the legal aspects, I too would welcome input from WMF Legal. But that said, I remember WMF Legal having previously said (I'm not bothering to look it up, but I would guess it's either in the archived talk here, or the archived talk at WT:PAID) that editors at individual wikis are free to make paid editing policies that are more stringent than the WMF Terms of Use, but may not make policies that are more lenient. --Tryptofish (talk) 21:16, 21 October 2018 (UTC) Struck part that was inaccurate, as was pointed out at my talk page. --Tryptofish (talk) 18:20, 22 October 2018 (UTC)
If this is a question of making the definition more stringent to include Sole proprietorships, I definitely oppose that. --David Tornheim (talk) 21:54, 21 October 2018 (UTC)
The question is whether the definition already includes sole proprietorships; whether compensation through employment is any different than compensation through self-employment, for the purposes of the Terms of Use and related policies and guidelines. The concept of self-employment and "paying yourself" is somewhat paradoxical, yet generally accepted. At this point it seems to me that it does meet the definition of compensation - receiving money that you can spend on groceries, in exchange for the time you spent editing the Wikipedia article about your business - and that it's paid editing even if it's you "paying yourself". In any case, I don't think we should be talking about changing policy or definitions before there's a good answer about how to understand the existing ones. After that we could talk about how to improve the wording so it's easier to understand, and after that if people want to talk about changing policy they can. --IamNotU (talk) 01:53, 22 October 2018 (UTC)
I agree that this discussion really began simply as a request for some feedback, and not as a proposal to change policies and guidelines. Somehow, it gradually turned into editors semi-voting on things that haven't, strictly speaking, been proposed. I agree very much with other editors that this local discussion would be insufficient to make any policy change, and that some clarification from Legal would be helpful and welcome. --Tryptofish (talk) 17:51, 22 October 2018 (UTC)
  • No Paid editing is paid editing. If we start going down the slippery slope of "obtaining some possible benefit or value" for the stringent wp provisions for paid editing, there would be no end to it. North8000 (talk) 13:53, 21 October 2018 (UTC)
  • The OP is a bit confused. First of all, the person undoubtedly has a conflict of interest -- they should disclose, and they should offer suggestions instead of editing directly. The only difference with WP:PAID, is that they must disclose, and that only becomes relevant in an enforcement context (if they don't disclose, we can indef them). But if we are in dialogue with someone, and that person wants to be a good citizen, then the exact classification doesn't really matter -- they will disclose and not edit directly and will try to frame policy-compliant suggestions.
To answer the question - the whole thing about "paid" is the following question - are you editing as part of your job - as part of how you put bread on the table? Answering that -- yes, a freelancer is paid. Yes, a person working for a PR agency, here on behalf of a client, is paid. A PR person for a company is paid (you would be amazed at how many say they are not) A secretary (or admin, or even a post doc) whose boss told them "hey edit this WP page for me" is a paid editor. All those people are editing "on the clock". Interns are paid editors. And yes - a sole proprietor who does everything for the business from sweeping the floor to making the product to selling it - is also a paid editor if they are here editing about their business.
But the question is really angels dancing on the head of a pin, outside of an enforcement context. Jytdog (talk) 22:20, 24 October 2018 (UTC)
Ok, I'll admit to being confused, but I think I'm in good company :) I was recently in dialogue with somone and at first they were reluctant to disclose, and didn't seem to think it was a big deal or take it seriously. They argued that there was no real conflict of interest because nobody was paying them to edit and they were just putting factual material into the article. People aren't always black hat or white hat, lots of them would prefer to bend the rules and get away with what they can, until someone calls them on it. It wasn't until I showed them the Terms of Use and WP:PAID, and the consequences of being blocked, and explained how seriously Wikipedia does take it, that they saw the light. So I think it did make a real difference in convincing someone that what they were doing was seriously not cool. Also, for a business owner who really does want to be a white hat, we should be able to tell them plainly which template to use, not say "it doesn't really matter". --IamNotU (talk) 00:37, 25 October 2018 (UTC)
Editors with a conflict of interest could make perfectly neutral edits such as updating facts. However it doesn't change that their relationship with the article's subject gives them an interest in the subject, which can conflict with the goals of Wikipedia. isaacl (talk) 02:00, 25 October 2018 (UTC)
I found the question and the discussion quite helpful, and I think that calling an editor "confused" was a poor choice of words. --Tryptofish (talk) 18:23, 25 October 2018 (UTC)
User:IamNotU the problem with conflicted editors (including paid editors) is their external commitment - namely that it generally, usually a) leads them to want to add promotional, POV content and remove negative content, and b) leads them to ignore what we actually do here - both the content and behavioral policies and guidelines. The first thing I do when interacting with someone who has an WP:APPARENTCOI, is ask them to disclose, and once they do, try to educate them about COI here in WP and why it matters, and what they should and should not do. Lots of people come here with no idea of what WP is actually for - they view it as a vital PR platform. So dealing with fundamentals first, is important. If they don't see the conflict (why they are here vs why WP is here - and between what they almost always want to do, and what is OK to do) it will just be endlessly frustrating for them and people trying to work with them. Jytdog (talk) 22:07, 31 October 2018 (UTC)
Jytdog, I completely agree with everything you just said... I was doing exactly that, trying to help educate someone in the way you describe. I think it's very common that people in a position of COI honestly feel they can still be neutral, even those who create and maintain an article about their own business. This person had been doing it for ten years. They can convince themselves that it's ok, because "nobody is paying" for edits, or because they did it on the weekend. After someone finally called them on it, at first the editor disclosed a general COI stating "I'm not being paid" and planned to continue editing the article, promising to keep it neutral and verifiable... I do think people whose job includes creating promotional content are more of a concern. They're more motivated to push their own interests - and to delude themselves that it's ok. It wasn't until I was able to convince them that the paid editing definition applied to them, and that what they were doing was not only bad but extra bad, that they admitted to themselves that they wouldn't be editing the article anymore. We should be able to tell people in no uncertain terms, in some prominent place, "if you're writing an article about a business that you own and manage, that's paid editing" - doing so without disclosing is not only against the COI guideline, but the paid editing policy, and the Terms of Use, a legal contract you've agreed to, and most likely against the covert advertising laws of your country. I think there's a significantly large class of people who would respond to that and refrain from doing it, who would otherwise have done it if there was a more vague and wishy-washy message and it looked like lots of other people were getting away with it... --IamNotU (talk) 23:56, 31 October 2018 (UTC)
Yep, same page for the most part. But in my experience there is not a lot of difference between the subset of conflicted editors who are not paid, and the subset that is paid. If somebody with any sort of declared COI insists on editing directly, and edit wars bad content into Wikipedia, you will be able to get them indeffed regardless of whether they agree they fall under "paid" or not. The main thing is that they agree to the 2 step management process -- disclosure and putting things through prior review. If you like I have an initial, and then a follow-up, set of "boilerplates" in my sandbox - the first step one is here, and the 2nd step is right below it. Jytdog (talk) 00:17, 1 November 2018 (UTC)
Return to the project page "Conflict of interest".